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article imageOp-Ed: Do energy drinks have dangerous levels of caffeine, or not?

By Paul Wallis     Jan 16, 2012 in Health
Sydney - Popular high caffeine energy drinks like Red Bull and V are in the firing line in Australia from the Australian Medical Association. A study from the Poison Hotline in New South Wales is being cited, indicating a spike in cases of toxicity.
From The Australian:
CAFFEINE-LOADED energy drinks are responsible for an ever-increasing number of hospital visits and calls to poison hotlines, and are blamed for a variety of serious symptoms such as hallucinations, seizures and even heart attacks.
This story is trickier than it looks. These drinks have been on the market for a long time. Complaints have been mixed, to say the least, and the nearest thing to media attention the high caffeine drinks have previously received was the revelation that Britney Spears, in one of her off periods, drank a lot of Red Bull.
This exhaustive lack of analysis has hit the headlines in a sort of “Hey, look at this. I’m drinking something that the AMA thinks is dangerous”.
The Sydney Morning Herald, and practically every other article on the subject, quote this text from the study:
Caffeine toxicity can mimic amphetamine poisoning, cause seizures, psychosis, cardiac arrhythmias and, rarely, death. However, the most common symptoms reported included irregular heart rate, tremors, stomach upsets and dizziness.
This is actually a lot closer to the known facts as well as the urban myths about caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, and an effective one, and is usually not toxic. That said, people have different medical conditions. If you have a heart condition, you don’t want it aggravated. If you have high blood pressure, you don’t want any help making it higher. In these situations, caffeine would not be the stimulant you’d want to be taking.
Caffeine is also considered a diuretic, which if not considered a toxic condition is no joke in some circumstances. If you have water retention problems, it’s probably not a great option to be drinking tons of caffeine. Dehydration can cause kidney damage, another very unfunny result.
“Hallucinations” is a new one. You’d think if it caused hallucinations, caffeine would be even more popular. As a matter of fact it does cause pupil dilation, a symptom of much better known hallucinogens, but hallucinations? Are almost the total populations of North and South America off their faces?
“Psychosis” is also new. It’s not a particularly helpful definition, either. Psychosis according to what criteria, for example? Excuse some skepticism, but if a psychotic drinks a cup of coffee, is it the coffee that causes the psychosis, or an underlying medical condition? I have a feeling that many psychologists would have some reservations about attributing psychoses to a drink.
It’s definitely not out of the ballpark that an overdose of any stimulant can cause death. Amphetamines regularly do just that, even in healthy people, so an “amphetamine mimic” capability is definitely an issue.
The AMA wants warnings on the drinks. The industry, with some justification, says that personal responsibility has to have some relevance in this situation. The only trouble with the industry’s view is that people aren’t necessarily well enough informed or even necessarily literate enough to join the dots about overdoing stimulants.
Overall, caffeine is also said to have some health benefits. Probably one of the more balanced views of caffeine comes from Disabled After listing a range of benefits, including fat metabolism in diet pills, which include a lot of caffeine, it states:
Two cups of coffee a day is considered an acceptable amount. Caffeine does not become a problem until you start consuming an excessive amount of it. As your body gets used to caffeine, it becomes addicted to it. The symptoms for drinking too much caffeine and the symptoms for caffeine withdrawal are very similar.
This is a caffeine chart from
As you can see from the chart, some drinks have huge doses of caffeine. Something called 5150 Juice is claimed to have 16000mg of caffeine in it. No thanks, not even on a bet. How much stimulation do you need?
If you have a medical condition where stimulants can have adverse effects, look out. The high caffeine drink very probably isn’t a great idea. Warnings, yes, because they could obviously benefit some people who don’t know they’re at possible risk. Witch hunts, no.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Australian medical association, New South Wales Poisons Information Centre, Caffeine, Energy drinks, Red Bull
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